Dungeons & Dragons. A fantasy mythos where people of all ages and from many walks of life come together to play with multi-sided dice and steadily build worlds of remarkable complexity and creativity in which elves, barbarians, warlocks, mages and dwarves embark on great adventures. A mythos that provides many with great pleasure and fulfillment and, for a select few, a livelihood in the design and construction of tiny people and places.
I’ll hold my hands up and say I am not a gamer. While I have dabbled in fantasy role play, it is largely a world unfamiliar to me. Therefore, a documentary about this topic could fall into the trap associated with the activity itself, being insular, self-perpetuating and, to some, nerdy and even infantile. To view gamers as socially inept overgrown children is to be cruel, judgmental and arrogant, but nonetheless, is there sufficient material in the activity and the people involved to interest non-aficionados?
In the case of The Dwarvenaut, the answer is a resounding yes. Director Josh Bishop (“Made in Japan”) creates an engaging documentary that conveys the enthusiasm of gamers with affection and warmth. Bishop is never patronizing yet maintains the distance needed to make this subject interesting to those without a stake in the world. Central to this is the infectious passion and enthusiasm of the central figure Stefan Pokorny. As an adopted Korean-American growing up in Brooklyn, Pokorny could be presented as a congenital outsider, retreating from the real world into fantasy. Instead, the film presents the reverse journey, as Pokorny brings the wonder of Dungeons & Dragons to a wider audience through his extraordinary art work. Some of the highlights of The Dwarvenaut feature the work of Pokorny and his fellow artists at Dwarven Forge, a New York-based manufacturer of D&D miniatures. The care and attention to detail that these artists invest in their work is not only fascinating to behold, but the walls, streets, figurines and buildings that they create are beautiful and breathtaking. Bishop sometimes moves his camera through this tabletop terrain, which does a fine job of bringing the miniature environments to life.
This life is in no small part due to Pokorny’s narration, speaking in the role of a Dungeon Master to describe the world of his creations including its mythology and history. This voiceover is part of the game play, but also serves to communicate the mythos to the uninitiated viewer. Furthermore, the viewer is treated to a warts’n’all story of Pokorny, including his two adoptions, his loving relationship with his eventual parents, who encouraged his interest in drawing and painting; his intermittent schooling before finding his calling at Hartford Art School. Pokorny is a wonderful protagonist, his passion for D&D evident in the way he speaks as well as his truly beautiful creations. His life outside of Dwarven Forge is glimpsed in the occasional appearances of his girlfriend and his fondness for cooking, for which he credits his Italian mother. By including these hints, Bishop ensures that Pokorny comes across as a rounded human being, not defined entirely by his relationship with D&D. At one moment, he mentions that he supports an American football team, which seems incongruous to the stereotype of a fantasy gamer. But then that’s the point — this is not “The Big Bang Theory,” with social misfits scripted for comedic effect. Pokorny and the people around him are humans in their entirety: spiky, varied and not subject to the dictates of narrative. Bishop embraces this variety by interweaving Pokorny’s life history with his career in game terrain design, often out of order with an editing scheme that reflects the non-linear pattern of memory. Links are made between Pokorny opening the company’s new workshop and his father’s love of art, as well as segueing smoothly from Pokorny recording a promotional video to reminiscing about his mother’s death. Moments such as these are poignant, as Pokorny holds nothing back while Bishop tastefully does not dwell on this grief, allowing the viewer to appreciate Pokorny’s loss without indulging in it.
Not that the film lacks a narrative throughline, as the central thrust of the film is Pokorny’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the design and construction of Dwarven Forge’s city for D&D, Valoria. Specifically, The Dwarvenaut follows the third and most ambitious Kickstarter campaign, raising several million dollars for this project. For all the family history and attention to terrain design, the film always returns to the ongoing campaign, its shortfall as the deadline looms, and potential consequences (Pokorny at one point predicts that if the campaign fails, he will be “waiting tables”). Once again, Bishop shows admirable restraint, never over-emphasizing the importance of the campaign while also keeping the reminders regular. Bishop’s own guitar-based soundtrack is helpful in this regard, as it provides a constantly progressing underscore, reminding the viewer of the ongoing development and that the film is building to a climax.
The Kickstarter campaign also demonstrates the wide reach of Dwarven Forge and D&D in general. Early in the film, Pokorny expresses concern about the impact of technology, which places people behind a screen for so much of their lives. His goal, as he puts it, is to bring people together around a table, interacting on a human level through the medium of D&D. The community aspect is further expressed through a sequence at Gary Con, an annual convention held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, named for the creator of D&D, Gary Gygax. The diverse range of players from many walks of life comes across in this sequence, allowing the viewer a privileged look into a potentially hermetic and baffling world.
This is the great strength of The Dwarvenaut. Rather than being a defiant defense of geekery, it is a warm and affectionate portrayal of an artist dedicated to his craft and the people of his community. These people are fascinating and the zeal they bring to their endeavors is easy to empathize with, even for those with no association with fantasy role play. After watching The Dwarvenaut, you might want to give it a try, perhaps in Valoria with terrains from Dwarven Forge. Other retailers of miniature terrains are available.